Dahabiya

Pierre Loti

Pierre Loti (1850–1923), pseudonym of the French writer and traveller Julien Viaud. As a Navy officer he sailed around the world.

 

The downfall of the Nile

From Egypt (La Mort de Philae), by Pierre Loti, 1909

It was an exceptional country, this valley of the Nile; marvellous and unique; fertile without rain, watered according to its need by the great river, without the help of any cloud. It knew not the dull days and the humidity under which we suffer, but kept always the changeless sky of the immense surrounding deserts, which exhaled no vapour that might dim the horizon. It was this eternal splendour of its light, no doubt, and this easiness of life, which brought forth here the first fruits of human thought. This same Nile, after having so patiently created the soil of Egypt, became also the father of that people, which led the way for all others like those early branches that one sees in spring, which shoot first from the stem, and sometimes die before the summer. It nursed that people, whose least vestiges we discover to-day with surprise and wonder; a people who, in the very dawn, in the midst of the original barbarity, conceived magnificently the infinite and the divine; who placed with such certainty and grandeur the first architectural lines, from which afterwards our architecture was to be derived; who laid the bases of art, of science, and of all knowledge.

Poor Nile of the prodigies! One feels sometimes still its departing charm, stray corners of it remain intact. There are days of transcendent clearness, incomparable evenings, when one may still forget the ugliness and the smoke. But the classic expedition by dahabiya, the ascent of the river from Cairo to Nubia, will soon have ceased to be worth making.

Ordinarily this voyage is made in the winter, so that the traveller may follow the course of the sun as it makes its escape towards the southern hemisphere. The water then is low and the valley parched. Leaving the cosmopolitan town of modern Cairo, the iron bridges, and the pretentious hotels, with their flaunting inscriptions, it imparts a sense of sudden peacefulness to pass along the large and rapid waters of this river, between the curtains of palm-trees on the banks, borne by a Dahabiya where one is master and, if one likes, may be alone.